Owning It

November 2013


From the acclaimed book, Owning It

By Alex Kajitani

California Teacher of the Year


Please Stop Thinking!

Three Things Teachers Say That Sabotage Learning


As teachers, we always keep an eye out for the “teachable moment.”  Those unexpected twists and turns (usually student-provoked) in our daily routine that allow us to grab hold of a question, comment or mistake and spark in our students knowledge that is real-time and interesting.  We’re also taught to ask questions that are thought-provoking and lead to “higher-level” conversations.  As a basic premise, we know that the teachable moment is often the most powerful, memorable part of our day.


However, often below that knowledge are words, phrases and instructions that do the exact opposite of what we intend.  Instead of invoking thinking, these words actually sabotage it.  Bringing these phrases to our consciousness can help us truly take advantage of teachable moments and inspire learning in our classrooms.


What NOT To Say


Below are three of these phrases (as spoken by the teacher), how they are perceived (as heard by the students), and a few alternatives that will keep your classes on-track, on-target and ready for the next truly teachable moment.


  1. What we say: “You were supposed to have learned this last year.”

What students hear:  “You didn’t do what you were supposed to do last year, and it doesn’t appear that you’re doing it this year either.”


In addition, when we make this statement, we are also implying that the teacher that they had last year didn’t do their job properly.  This creates a negative divide between you and the previous teacher, as well as you and the students.  In addition, often the student(s) did learn it last year, they just don’t recognize it because it is now in a different context with a different teacher. 


Instead consider the following alternatives:


“I believe you have some background knowledge about this concept.  Tell me some of the things you know about xx.”


“Let’s step back from this topic and look at some of the information we need to know in order to understand this.”


“Let me see a show of hands of who does remember this (half the class).  OK, now those of you raising your hands have 3 minutes to pair up with those who do not, and tell them everything you know about this topic.”


All three of the above statements take the responsibility of learning away from whatever happened (or did not happen) last year, and instead refocus the learning on the students, what they already know, and what they need to know.  In addition, it does so in a way that is empowering for the students.


  1. What we say: “This is important.  It will be on the test.”

What students hear:  “Don’t worry about all that other stuff.  If I don’t tell you it’s on the test, it’s not really something we need to focus on.”


Tests, like grades, are important.  But we all know that the best way to do well on tests and get good grades is to learn, understand and apply the information.  In addition, any student with a history of poor grades is not motivated by what will be on the test.  She is motivated by knowing how the information you’re teaching in class will help her in her life.  As teachers, one of our goals is to instill in our students a personal engagement in the subject we are teaching them. 


This statement also undermines us as teachers.  Placing the information’s importance on the fact that it will be tested also sends the message that it is the only reason we’re teaching it, that we are not in control of our curriculum, and we ourselves do not understand its importance. 


Instead consider the following alternatives:


“This is important.  It helps us understand the link between x and y.”


“Tomorrow, we’re going to study y.  Let’s make sure we understand x, so that we can easily understand the connection when we uncover it tomorrow.”


“I didn’t think that this was important when I learned it in school.  But then one day I (insert your own story here!).”


All three of the above take the emphasis off of the test, and promote the importance of a love of learning, as well as lifelong learning.  They help our students make connections within the subject matter, as well as connections between the information and their daily lives.  When true learning happens, the test scores and grades seem to take care of themselves!


  1. What we say: “Please stop talking.”

What students hear: “Please stop talking… and thinking!”


Yes, there are times when we need the students to stop talking so that we can give instructions.  And there are times when personal issues are of greater interest to our students than the teacher’s objectives for the day. 


But there are also times when the students really are talking about the subject matter.  And when we demand that they stop talking, we are, many times, demanding that in order to be quiet, they switch from a brain filled with ideas and questions to one that is blank and uninterested. 


Instead consider the following alternatives to quiet down or transition your class (and keep them thinking at the same time):


“I am going to count down from 10.  In those ten seconds I want you to read the objective on the board, and be prepared to discuss it.” (promotes reading)


“If you can hear me, clap once. (Wait 3 seconds.)  If you can hear me, clap twice.” (promotes kinesthetics)


“As I lower my hand, change your conversations into a soft whisper, until my hand is lowered completely.” (Note: This one requires a bit of training in advance, but I have found kids love the participation of it.  I liken it to how the end of a song fades into silence, as opposed to being turned off abruptly.)


Students talk when they are excited. And in today’s non-stop world of texting and social networking, the floodgates seem always open for them to comment, reply or “like” (Facebook users will understand that term) — a continuous kind of “talking” in the online world in which they’re used to participating.  The trick is to transition student talking into learning the subject at hand, in a way that is smooth, effective, engaging to the students and respectful toward the teacher.


In sum, if we really want to seize those “teachable moments” with our students, we must be willing to put ourselves in their shoes and examine our own vernacular for those phrases that sabotage their learning.  Then, we must erase those phrases from our teaching vocabulary and redirect them into words that inspire and empower our students to think beyond what they’ve been hearing for years, and engage in their own learning.


For more articles like this one, be sure to check out www.OwningItBook.com